After a bloody showdown, the Taliban has overrun a vital district in southern Afghanistan that might help the insurgents to expand control in the region.
Local officials and lawmakers in the southern Afghan province of Helmand confirmed that the Taliban overran Musa Qala district in north Helmand around noon local time on August 26.
Speaking to Radio Free Afghanistan, Musa Qala's district governor, Mohammad Sharif, said that late on August 25 the Taliban stormed the district center -- consisting of a small market and government buildings -- from three sides.
"Hundreds of fighters began the attack around 11 p.m. last night. Now they have captured the local police headquarters, the health clinic, and other government buildings," he said. "The insurgents have also captured the local bazaar and now control all the roads here."
Sharif told Reuters he had been asking senior officials for help and reinforcements for days but none had arrived. "And this was what happened," he said.
Abdul Hai Akhundzada represents Helmand in the lower house of Afghan Parliament. He said Afghan security forces were forced to abandon Musa Qala in the aftermath of an intensive battle.
"The battle raging in Musa Qala for the past few days has been one of the most intense in Afghanistan during the past 15 years," he said. "Our army and police fought bravely, but they were exhausted by the battle and nobody helped them. They received no reinforcements or air support and were compelled to abandon Musa Qala to the enemy."
Akhundzada said the fall of Musa Qala sends a bad signal. "Unfortunately, Musa Qala is now in the hands of the Taliban. It is a [strategically] vital district, and its fall implies the fall of Helmand," he said.
Abdul Karim Attal, head of Helmand's provincial council, told Radio Free Afghanistan that 25 Afghan soldiers were killed and 40 more injured in the battle for Musa Qala.
He said the Taliban had besieged Afghan security forces in the region for nearly a week but the government failed to send reinforcements or target the insurgents in airstrikes.
In Kabul, the Defense Ministry rejected claims that the Taliban have seized Musa Qala. Dawlat Waziri, a spokesman for the ministry, said that even the losses of the Afghan security forces are exaggerated.
"We do not confirm that this district has fallen. We have some casualties but not on the scale that people are claiming," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "All our units across Helmand have gathered, and we will soon cleanse this region of our enemies."
The Taliban, however, claimed victory in the district. "We have completely captured the strategically significant Musa Qala district in Helmand Province," read an August 26 post on the hard-line movement's official Voice of Jihad website.
Musa Qala is the second Helmand district seized by the Taliban this month. Last week, the insurgents captured neighboring Nawzad district. During the past 14 years, the Taliban have been largely in charge of the Baghran and Dishu districts in remote regions of northern and southern Helmand.
Musa Qala is considered a major center of poppy cultivation and the drug trade. In the past, it had a reputation as being a key Taliban recruiting base. Since 2001, the district has changed hands many times, and in 2007 it was the scene of one of the fiercest battles between the British and U.S. forces and the Taliban.
Its fall will now further strain Afghan forces in the neighboring districts of Sangin, Washer, and Kajaki.
In April, the Taliban unleased a large offensive in northern Helmand. Highly mobile Taliban units, often using motorcycles, launched rapid attacks against Afghan security forces. In periodic mass attacks, the Taliban inflicted heavy casualties on the Afghan forces. The insurgents gradually besieged key district centers in the region and now appear to be poised to push for control of the whole region.
After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, tens of thousands of international troops, mostly British and American, failed to rein in the Taliban violence, poppy cultivation, and drug trafficking in Helmand.
The fertile, irrigated valleys of Helmand have produced most of the world's opium and heroin for more than two decades. Its border with Pakistan and close proximity to Iran have turned it into a lucrative route for the drug trade.
A conflict between militia commanders and strongmen in Helmand in the 1990s fostered the rise of the Taliban. The hard-line movement still counts the region as one of its main recruiting grounds and benefits from its drug trade.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand, and Safiullah Stanekzai’s contribution from Kabul, Afghanistan.